©2014 Kenneth N. Margolin
A student disciplinary hearing involving serious charges should never be taken lightly. A finding of responsibility for a college student's momentary lapse in judgment, can harm graduate school or employment options for years after college. Regrettably, college administrators believe that disciplinary hearings are learning experiences, a life lesson to be taught to the allegedly wayward student. I placed allegedly in italics because the presumption of innocence carries little sway at many disciplinary hearings. Presumed responsible unless you persuade us otherwise is the prevailing sentiment. Absent legislation granting Massachusetts colleges students charged with serious matters, the right to be accompanied by attorneys to their disciplinary hearings, or a re-education of college administrators, it will be a long time before they view college disciplinary hearings with enormous financial and reputational implications. Currently, students are too often patronized, treated like children, not young adults, consumers of a valuable and expensive commodity. Worse, they may be lulled into a false sense of security, unprepared for loose procedures that may lead to a damaging finding.
Given the unhappy reality of the college disciplinary hearing world, students facing a hearing on a serious charge, must behave as if their education and future are at stake. Following are eight key points to remember before stepping foot into a disciplinary hearing.1. Prepare, prepare, prepare
Never attend a meeting involving a disciplinary charge, or a hearing, without thoroughly preparing for the event. Know the result you will ask for, and how you plan to persuade the hearing officials to see things your way. Think before you speak. For some specific suggestions, see A Guide to College Disciplinary Proceedings, on this web site.2. Never Lie
As some American presidents have learned, lying about an incident can do more damage than the incident itself. If you are caught in a lie, the sanction against you may be increased. You will lose the trust and respect of your college officials, not to mention the erosion of self-respect that may result. Tell the truth when you speak to school administrators, or testify at a hearing. If you do not remember a detail, don't be afraid to state your lack of recollection – resist the urge to fill in blanks in your memory.3. Pay attention to questions posed to you – answer carefully
Students facing disciplinary charges have a natural desire to cooperate with the college officials deciding their fate. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the student may have been led to believe that the proceeding is a friendly, educational one, with their welfare the only goal. There will be times when a student may be asked a leading question by a college administrator, for example, "you had a little bit too much to drink at the frat party that night?" or, "you and Joe were friendly, right?" A careless affirmative answer may show up on a negative disciplinary decision as a finding that "student admitted he drank to excess at the frat party," or "student admitted he was friends with Joe, who was part of the group that vandalized the ...." Be very careful before simply saying "yes," to leading questions. To use the above examples, if you had more to drink than perhaps you know you should have, but felt you handled it well and it wasn't "too much," you would not want to agree to the premise posed to you. If you knew Joe passingly, but he was not a friend, you would want to make that clear, rather than simply agreeing with the question. Leading questions can be dangerous if not answered with care.4. Stand up for yourself – respectfully
Do not bring an angry, arrogant, or flippant attitude into a disciplinary hearing. It will be held against you. Do, however, treat the process as an important matter, not as a chat among friends. Maintain a serious demeanor. Insist that you be treated fairly if any official attempts to bully you or pressure you to agree to what you deny – not common, but it happens. If a charge strikes you as unfair, don't be afraid to say so. If a questioner attempts to put words into your mouth, you can say, firmly, "that's not what I said," or "I don't think my meaning is being understood" – whatever is appropriate. If you are innocent of the charges, be insistent throughout the hearing that you did not commit the misdeeds with which you were charged.5. Emphasize important points – simplify
Decide on one, or no more that a few points, that you think are most important to your hearing, and emphasize those points. Try not to ramble or to bring up irrelevant matters. For example, if you were at a frat party, left before it got out of hand, but were charged with misconduct along with other party-goers, make the point clearly, that there was no rowdiness while you were at the party, that you did nothing wrong – then present whatever evidence you have to back your claim. If the evidence the school contends supports a conclusion that you did participate in misconduct, is weak or incorrect, point out the weakness or incorrectness clearly and forcefully. Help the hearing officials understand your defense by emphasizing only the strongest and most relevant points.6. If possible, point out high grades, participation in extra-curricula activities, and a clean disciplinary record
If you have been a good student, done good deeds on campus or in the community, and have a clean disciplinary record, make sure that the hearing officials know it. Explaining your positive work at your college is important whether you are innocent of the charges, or are responsible as charged, and are pleading for a lenient sanction. General statements, such as "I'm a good person," or a "responsible student" are not particularly helpful. Specific good deeds and achievements, however, can have a positive impact.7. If you are responsible for the charges, let it be known that you have learned your lesson, and there will be no repeat
The officials hearing your disciplinary charge will be more inclined to leniency if they truly believe that you will not be a repeat offender. Don't leave their belief that you have learned your lesson, to chance. Tell them. Explain that the disciplinary process has been sobering, scary (if that is true), and that they can be confident that you will abide by the rules for the rest of your college education. It will be very helpful, if before the hearing, you do some introspection, and mean it – an insincere pledge will be worse than none at all.
It is not possible to anticipate everything that might happen at your disciplinary hearing. Specific facts of the incident, the charges, rules of the college, and personalities of the student and hearing officials, will vary. If you remember the seven points in this article, you will improve your chances for a successful outcome.